Aristotle Socrates Onassis was born in Smyrna, Turkey, in either 1900 or 1906 - throughout his life he maintained two passports, with two very different dates of birth. A Greek of Turkish nationality, his mother died when he was 6. In adolescence, Onassis admired his Uncle Alexander, who taught him to always charm his way to the top of every situation, and drilled into his impressionable young mind ancient Greek stories of passion, love, revenge, defiance, and loyalty, concepts that would play out in Onassis' later life.
Onassis fled to Greece when war erupted in Smyrna, becoming a homeless Anatolian refugee at 17 - or 23, depending on which year of birth you believe. Onassis wanted to emigrate to the U.S., but immigration quotas had just been introduced, and Anatolian refugees were on the "not wanted list." Soon he ventured to Buenos Aires, Argentina, the destination for many a young man hungry to carve out his place in the world.
During his years in Argentina, Onassis imported Turkish tobacco from Greece. His father had been successful in the tobacco industry in Turkey before the war. Some historians and conspiracy theorists maintain that Onassis actually imported opium, not cigarette tobacco, into Argentina, and that he later made his huge megafortune, not from oil and shipping activities, but from drug running, and from the manufacture of synthetic diamonds, rubies and emeralds which he marketed as genuine precious stones.
Onassis entered the shipping business in the 1930s, when he purchased his first oil tankers. From then on, his fortune kept multiplying. He was like Midas, legendary king of Phrygia, who requested of the gods that everything he touched be turned to gold. The gods granted Midas his wish, but then his food turned to gold the moment he touched it, and man cannot live by gold alone. Onassis identified strongly with other Greek heroes, namely Achilles and Odysseus. From Onassis' private island of Skorpios in the wine-dark Ionian Sea, one can see Odysseus' ancient island kingdom of Ithaca. Onassis' sense of his Greek ancestry was profound. He felt that his life was deeply touched by ancient mythology; he often read Homer's tales of the Trojan War, and fantasized about Helen, "the face that launched a thousand ships."
From the time he was a young man, Onassis' relationships with women were stormy. An early romance with a ballet dancer in Buenos Aires ended with violence; afterwards, he drowned himself in drink, a tendency that developed into raging alcoholism in later life. In the 1930s, he became engaged to the daughter of a wealthy Swedish shipowner, Ingeborg Dedichen, a romance that included more than one violent episode in which an enraged, drunk Onassis beat his fiancée. Onassis admitted a certain sexual pleasure in violence, and was quoted as saying, "he who loves well, beats well."
The first Mrs. Aristotle Onassis, Athena Livanos (Tina), described Onassis as "a brutal drunk." They were married in 1946, divorced in 1960. Visitors who spent time with Onassis and Tina sometimes heard sounds of physical violence, and a woman's screams, coming from the master's bedroom.
During his lifetime, Onassis was investigated by the FBI, the CIA, the KYP (Greek CIA), Britain's M15, and the DST (French security service), among others. In 1953, Onassis hired Dr. Hjalman Schacht to negotiate an oil contract with the King of Saudi Arabia. Schacht had been Adolf Hitler's financial wizard, his economic dictator, and president of the Reichsbank in 1937. Schacht had been acquitted of war crimes at Nuremberg in 1946 - "you can't hang a banker," cynics said - but was later found guilty by a German denazification court. Schacht successfully created the Jiddah Agreement, between the Saudis and Onassis, which called for Onassis to supply 500,000 tons of tanker shipping toward the establishment of the Saudi Arabian Maritime Company. Onassis' fleet would fly the national flag of Saudi Arabia, and be exempt from Saudi taxes. Within a decade, this agreement allowed Onassis to create a strategic monopoly on the transport of Saudi oil.
The Jiddah Agreement created a crisis in Washington, DC, because this new, huge Saudi fleet posed a threat to U.S. interests. Onassis argued his case before the State Department, saying that he had signed the deal with the Saudi Government because "somebody had to"; it was a huge deal waiting for someone to grab it, and he did. The U.S. Government wasn't mollified. The American Jewish lobby was pressuring the U.S. oil companies to stop dealing with the Saudis, and the Jiddah Agreement contained a clause, written by Schacht, that Jews could have no direct or indirect interest in any of the subcontracting companies. Then, to add fuel to an already flaming fire, Onassis invited Alfred Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach to the launching of one of his latest tankers; it was Krupp's first official public appearance since serving six years in prison as a Nazi war criminal. Onassis invited him despite his aides' warnings not to.
It was around this time that the CIA planted a listening device in Onassis' Paris apartment, which led to his indictment by the U.S. Government for conspiracy to violate the false statement statute of the Ship Sales Act when his companies filed applications to buy surplus vessels. He was also charged with false balance sheets, false financial statements, and false claims about citizenship. On December 21, 1955, Onassis paid a $7 million fine (equivalent to $38 million in 1995) to the U.S. Government, for fraud and criminal charges.
Onassis had lots of enemies, some in high places; he also had quite a few good friends who owed him favors, also in very high places. Onassis' need to control everything often led to tyranny on his part, in both business and private life. Some said an air of sinister melodrama followed him wherever he went. Costa Gratsos observed after Onassis' death that there had been a violence in Onassis, tending towards sadism at times, that was never far from the surface, and that he aimed at those closest to him, especially when he drank. Onassis himself once said, "if you have one golden apple, you have the power; you can get away with murder if you have a single apple that somebody else wants."
Onassis had a publicity agent to keep his name in the press, believing that constant publicity about his social life gave him credibility with bankers. Throughout his checkered shipping career, and in his personal life, Onassis made a definite impression on those he met. During Onassis' short-lived friendship with Prince Rainier of Monaco, Onassis declared that "there should be no gambling in Monte Carlo. Gambling is immoral," to which Rainier responded, "Really, Mr. Onassis, I do not think you are in a position to tell me what's moral and what's immoral."
In 1959, Giovanni Meneghini, while filing for a legal separation from his wife, Maria Callas, referred to Aristotle Onassis as one of the "persons who are reckoned the most powerful of our time." His use of the word "powerful" rather than the word "wealthy" is notable. Onassis was, to be sure, an example of self-will run riot.
Onassis was in Hamburg, Germany on November 22, 1963, publicly launching one of his new tankers, the Olympic Chivalry, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He immediately called Lee Radziwill in London, then flew to Washington with her in one of his private jets. Onassis owned Olympic Airlines from 1955 until January 1975, when he handed it back to the Greek government shortly before his death. Having his own private airline for 20 years provided Onassis with the means to go anywhere, at any time, and also to fly other people, anywhere, at any time. Records of passenger lists and flight schedules did not have to be kept for his private airline as strictly as they would have been kept for a public airline.
Onassis was a guest at the White House during the funeral. President Kennedy had told Onassis that he was not welcome in America until after the 1964 election, but his presence went unnoticed in the days of shock and mourning that gripped America and the world. He played the part of court jester at the funeral, drinking heavily and telling stories with Bobby and Teddy Kennedy. Nevertheless, the Kennedy brothers instinctively disliked him.
On December 3, a week after JFK's dramatic, televised funeral, Onassis and Maria Callas conspicuously celebrated her 40th birthday at Maxim's in Paris. But a close Onassis aide, Panaghis Vergottis, said that he knew Onassis' interest in the newly-widowed Jacqueline Kennedy would not quickly go away.
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